WHAT HAPPENS WHEN 55000 NEW NEIGHBOURS MOVE IN DOWN THE STREET?
The following sermon was written for the worship service at Sharon-Hope United Church, February 19th, 2017. Unfortunately, one of my children was unwell and Rev. Kathryn Phillips read this sermon to her congregation on my behalf. Sharon-Hope United Church is one of the partner congregations in the Living Presence Ministry. The goal of this presentation was to describe LPM to the congregants, provide some Biblical context for LPM’s development, and invite others to join us in our mission of welcoming our new neighbours in East Gwillimbury.
Our passage from Matthew this morning is one of the most famous and quoted passages of the New Testament, and is itself quoting from one of the most recognized texts in the Old Testament. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile…even people I know who have never set foot in a church for fear of spontaneous combustion can recite these words – and sometimes use them to justify any philosophical position they hold…
As a child sitting in church, listening to the minister preach on turning the other cheek, I always thought Jesus was talking about submission. I believed Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was an instruction on humility. I was pretty obsessed with being a “good girl” and a “good Christian” when I was younger. I didn’t really know what that meant, but thought it had a lot to do with trying to avoid Hell. So, to me, turning the other cheek and going the extra mile were important moral instructions on how to interact with those who were in positions of authority. In short, I understood the turn the other cheek text as an invitation to seek vocation as a door mat.
However, as is so often the case in these quotable, easily memed passages, it’s important to understand the context in which Jesus is speaking. Jesus and his people were an oppressed group, occupied by the Romans and living under their rule. The Romans had a number of ways to control their subjects, many of which involved violence or fear. However, another tool the Romans used was shame.
Now, shame is one of the most powerful emotions we can experience as human beings. Because it is so powerful, and so uncomfortable, we will do almost anything to avoid it. And because we will do almost anything to avoid it, shame is a very effective method of controlling those who find themselves oppressed. In the context of the Roman Expire, shame highlighted the lack of agency people held in their own lives. Culturally, using the back of the hand to strike a person – and since Jesus specifically discusses the right cheek we can assume this is the kind of strike he is talking about – was a grave insult. It signalled the strik-ee was not the equal of the strik-er… and that the strik-ee could be dismissed. That they were unimportant. Insignificant.
In Jesus’ time, any one of his followers could have been compelled to carry the armour of a Roman Soldier, but only for one mile. To constantly be reminded that you were less than those in charge – that your fate was at the mercy of those who held Roman citizenship – these were tactics the Romans used to shame their subjects, and therefore remove the agency they held over their own lives.
But what relevance does this context have for us here and now? East Gwillimbury is an awful long way from Rome. We are not occupied. We are not an oppressed people. It would be a pretty shocking thing to have somebody backhand you across the face in the parking lot at Vince’s. It would be pretty weird if somebody wheeled their cart up to you in the check-out line and demanded you carry their groceries for a mile down Leslie Street. A mile? How far is that anyway? You know…I had to look it up… I’m not bilingual. I only speak metric…
Leslie Street. There are an awful lot of changes happening along Leslie Street right now. Even in the past few months I’ve been astonished at how quickly the new homes are popping up in the developments that line that road.
So. Much. Change.
Luckily, there is a group of people within the United Church who knew there were some big changes coming. In 2014, Toronto United Church Council carried out a demographic study on behalf of Living Waters Presbytery in order to have a better idea of what was happening with the population in this community. They found that East Gwillimbury, and particularly the communities of Sharon and Queensville, were about to see an unprecedented level of population growth. By 2031, East Gwillimbury’s population is set to rise to 87,000 people — a 300% increase from 2006 levels. You are already seeing changes happening. The houses are here. Your new neighbours are arriving. And they’ve shown up before the new infrastructure to accommodate so many people has been developed. There are no new schools yet. Southlake is still the only accessible hospital…
And besides the sheer numbers of people who are coming in, the demographics of these new developments are about to become far more multicultural. East Gwillimbury will soon be a more diverse and multi-faith community. During my time here so far, I’ve been hearing a lot of questions and comments about the unknowns this change ushers in: Will we be able to communicate? Will they share our community’s values? All the people moving in are renters who won’t care about our community and will drive down our property values. As a church, why should we even bother trying to appeal to newcomers when we’re not even sure they’re Christian anyway?
I’m not going to lie – I find these comments jarring, and I want to make it clear that the new residents moving into Sharon Village and My Queensville are not Roman occupiers. Heck – I’m moving in and I tend to think of myself as a pretty nice person.
That being said, I do understand where the anxiety is coming from. I really do. Although I currently live in Toronto, I grew up on a farm about 20 minutes outside of Orillia. I honestly can’t imagine what “back home” would look like if my parents had sold our farm to a developer so they could build 6000 new homes. It would completely change the way of life for the people who helped raise me, and it would do so without their permission, or their opting into that change.
It would remove the sense of agency people held over their own lives.
But what Jesus is offering to his followers is a chance to reclaim some of their agency – to reclaim some of the power and control they have over not only who they are, but also how they are in the world.
If somebody shames you by hitting you with the back of their hand, by turning the other cheek, you force them to hit you with their palm. You also force them to look you in the eye. Turning the other cheek forces your aggressor to see you. To acknowledge you.
And if somebody tells you to walk one mile and you are willing to go with them a second mile, how are they forcing you do to anything at all?
By being willing to do more than is required, Jesus is giving his people a means of reclaiming their power and agency. Something that is given cannot be taken. Loving those who hate you turns the shame back onto the aggressor. Jesus is the originator of the “kill them with kindness” philosophy, except instead of Jesus trying to win the Romans over, he’s using love and a practice of non-violence to highlight the cruelty of those in power and the spiritual autonomy of his people. Even these small acts are moments of reclaiming agency and power.
At the end of July, my family and I will be moving to Queensville. The house we will be living in has been purchased by Toronto United Church Council on behalf of the Presbytery, and it will act as the hub for most of the programming we offer. My goal is to get to know the new residents of East Gwillimbury as their neighbor and, together with a committed team, we will be working to create a sense of community within the housing developments through activities such as community dinners, rock liturgies, parent-child drop ins, house concerts, singing circles, contemplation groups, podcasts and gardening clubs. While we won’t be walking around the community healing the sick with only our bare hands, we will be attempting to connect people with the social services they need and offer transitional and crisis support to those who are struggling. If those social services don’t exist and it’s apparent the need is great, we will be a part of advocating for their creation. We will be working to make sure the new residents of East Gwillimbury feel welcome. And through these conversations, we hope to invite our neighbours into discussions about faith and about the Spirit.
However, we also want to work with the existing residents to make sure that they don’t feel left behind. The Living Presence Ministry is partnered with the local United Church congregations to make them as inviting as possible for those who will be seeking a spiritual home in a more traditional setting. The Living Presence initiative is not meant to be competition with local congregations. It is a “both-and” approach. Our local congregations are important. Sharon-Hope has a lot to offer as the community continues to evolve and change. Because…the change is coming. The change is here. And I know, in some ways, it has come without everybody’s permission and without everybody’s opting-in. And the loss of agency – the loss of feeling one has a say in what happens within their community – is painful. This is something that really needs to be acknowledged.
But I want to leave today by extending to you an invitation. My invitation is for you to join us in being a part of shaping how the change happens. Rather than just standing by and watching the community change without your input and influence, I invite you to be a part of shaping the narrative of what happens when 55,000 new neighbours move in down the street. I invite you to invoke your agency. We need your knowledge and your wisdom. We need your love of the community. We need your heart and perhaps your willingness to walk with us an extra mile when times become challenging and uncertain. Personally, I need somebody to tell me where I can find CBC Radio on the dial when I get north of Hwy 7…seriously…
Because I will be one of those 55,000 people moving in down the street.
Hopefully, someday, East Gwillimbury isn’t going to be split into “new residents” and “old” residents. It will just be us. One big giant community of people living healthy, meaningful, spirit-filled lives. I feel really blessed and privileged to be part of a group trying to create this reality. It feels like a calling and it fills me with purpose.
And I hope some of you might want to join us in this mission. If you’d like to learn more about the Living Presence Ministry, or me, or perhaps might like to be on our list of people to call on when we start needing folks to hit the ground running, I’d love to meet you for a coffee sometime.
As I said, I’ll be moving here too, and I could use some new friends.